By Gino Francesconi
Isaac Stern was born on July 21, 1920, in Kremenets—at the time, a city in Poland, now in today’s Ukraine—and immigrated to San Francisco with his family when he was 10 months old. Isaac was not a child prodigy on the violin—in fact, he didn’t touch a violin until he was eight, primarily inspired by his best friend who played the instrument. But it was obvious from the start that Isaac had an extraordinary talent. His first public performance was at nine, his recital debut at 11, and at 17 he performed the Brahms Violin Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony—a concert that was broadcast across the country. At 23, he made his Carnegie Hall debut to rave reviews.
Isaac toured nearly nonstop, performing more concerts in front of more people than any violinist of his day, creating (as he called it) “a network of friends.” He premiered, commissioned, and recorded more new works than any other violinist in history. In addition to his artistry, the husband and father of three also gave generously and passionately to numerous causes. His agent, Sol Hurok, complained that when Isaac wasn’t on stage, he was on the phone. Conductor George Szell lamented Isaac could have been the greatest violinist after Jascha Heifetz, but he was “wasting” his time on so many worthy causes. And worthy indeed: Isaac was a founding member of the National Council on the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, and Jerusalem Music Centre; president of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation; a mentor to many young musicians, including Emanuel Ax, Yo-Yo Ma, Midori, Itzhak Perlman, and Pinchas Zukerman; and the instrumental force behind the saving of Carnegie Hall.
Isaac Stern was 39 when he led the successful campaign to save the Hall from demolition in 1960. After convincing the City of New York to purchase the building, Carnegie Hall became the first structure in the city saved for its historical significance. Isaac envisioned that the Hall could serve as a national center for music education and the training of young musicians. The nonprofit Carnegie Hall Corporation was formed, and Isaac was its president for more than 40 years. In 1997, the Main Hall was named in his honor.
The hub of Isaac’s activities was his office—a large apartment on Central Park West. Everywhere one looked, a visitor’s eyes landed on an achievement: Grammy Awards on bookshelves; an Emmy on the mantle; an Academy Award on a table; artwork for a recording cover signed by Marc Chagall; dozens of photos on the walls, many autographed by such luminaries as actress Joan Crawford, composer Jean Sibelius, Secretary-General of the United Nations U Thant, and presidents from Kennedy onwards. There were numerous keys to cities, honorary doctorates from schools like Oxford and Juilliard, boxes of medals from the Presidential Medal of Freedom to France’s Legion of Honour, stacks of correspondences, and music neatly stored in cabinets and piled on the grand piano. Large filing cabinets filled one bedroom and boxes of files filled other rooms. And the phone lines never stopped ringing: “Mr. Stern, Senator Javits is on line two.” Then there was the privilege of seeing the temperature-controlled closet that held the priceless violins and bows, including the Guarneri del Gesù that belonged to the great Eugène Ysaÿe, who had inscribed the inside in French: “This del Gesù was the faithful companion of my life.” Isaac said he would add, “Mine, too.”
Isaac Stern died on September 22, 2001, at the age of 81. His tombstone in Gaylordsville, Connecticut, is marked simply: “Isaac Stern, Fiddler.”
—Gino Francesconi is director of the Carnegie Hall Archives and Rose Museum.
With 2020 marking the Centenary of Isaac Stern's birth, Carnegie Hall dedicates its 2019–2020 season in his honor.